REVIEWS: A Corkscrew is Most Useful:The Travellers of Empire by Nicholas Murray
to be published in The Independent
Do you have nightmares about what you might say if sitting down for dinner at the high table of the Royal Geographical Society between Michael Palin and Sir Christopher Ondatjee? A Corkscrew is Most Useful will banish all such anxieties. It is a trunk-like book, packed full of tales of high adventure by a determined tribe of eccentric, quirky, self-willed British travellers. that it could sink an Institute. There are some terrific stories: of William
Baldwin celebrating his first kill by feasting on heart that evening followed by brawn at breakfast prepared by baking an elephant's foot overnight in the embers of the camp fire. It tells how travel transformed Isabella Bird from an insomniac with a spinal complaint and nervous headaches to a creature her husband (only ten years her younger) would define as having the 'appetite of a tiger and the digestion of an ostrich." Lewis Wingfield, a slim, delicate Irishman with a feminine but musical voice, travelled across Japan in a convoy of twelve rickshaws, four filled with baggage, three held his recent shopping purchases while one carried his 'man', Otto. Mansfield Parkyns ate, slept and dressed like a native Abyssinian. His advice, 'avoid noisy, demanding, petulant European travellers and instead try and practice the quiet manners of the indigenous people' remains as relevant today as it was in 1843. His advice about securing a bed for the night should also be remembered: 'wait under a tree - till some one asks one in'. There are also insufferable villains aplenty, suffering from a lack of interest, language, knowledge and sympathy to often combined with a burning desire for converts or to be back home on the grouse moors by the 12th. For Murray has deliberately widened his canvas to include idlers, guidebook writers, deluded missionaries and travel agents to try and create a representative sampling of the mood of the times.
The travellers who are still a delight to read today leave us in no doubt about their interest and their passionate response. Fanny Parkes contently travelling and sketching her way around Mughal India for 42 years was so moved by her first sight of a native (admittedly naked in Nicobar) that she wrote that 'he was like Adam when he tasted the forbidden fruit'. And Charles Darwin as he botanised around the world on HMS Beagle confessed that his first day in a Brazilian jungle had been 'a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again'.
Nicholas Murray's book is also good on bringing to life those travellers whose pride, racism and heavy prose make their own books unreadable today. The famous Dr Livingstone may have been a humourless obsessive (driving his wife to drink and his son to change his name) but when one looks at his self-taught knowledge, be it in Latin or medicine both of them acquired whilst working as a Glasgow mill-hand and at the dozen African
dialects he mastered, he was a man filled with astonishing
energy, decency and achievement. Richard Burton, as ever, dominates everybody and every continent, whether researching the boy brothels of Karachi, journeying to Mecca or struggling to find the source of the Nile. Typically he had already explored entirely new frontiers - the erotic secrets of the mind - as he was helping fill the last blanks on the map of the world. His books, like his sins, were many, now avidly collected but seldom read.
Some travellers revel in that endearing British habit of self-mocking humour which curbs pomposity and pretension. But do not be fooled. Whether following Curzon around the monasteries of the Levant, Mary Kingsley through the jungles of West Africa, or Amelia Edwards down the Nile, to understand these characters it is vital not to be hoodwinked by their self-deflating wit. Instead read Murray's biographical details with care. Curzon spent the rest of his life studying the scripts and the scribal skills he had (apparently) so lightly acquired as a youth when he brought back precious manuscripts to the British Museum. Amelia Edwards, once she returned home, turned herself into one of the driving forces behind Egyptology, helping establish the Egypt Exploration Society as well as the first university chair and would literally die from Egytian antiquities, catching pneumonia in the East End docks whilst supervising the unpacking of objects from a recent dig. Mary Kingsley was amongst the very first white writers to try and "think black' which is powerfully apparent in her work on festishism. She opposed the peddling of 'second-hand rubbishy white culture' but that would not stop her later trying to help individuals from arguably one of the most 'rubbishy white cultures' of all. She died from overwork as a volunteer in a hospital for Boer prisoners of war in 1900 - a true hero of her age and ours.
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by Barnaby Rogerson